Faithless Priests

“The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened…”

A journalism test piece I wrote during a short-lived attempt to get out of the games ghetto – I never pushed to get it published. 

The outside of New Unity church on Islington’s Upper Street doesn’t look much like a church. You could believe that the pale brick and painted wood belonged to a cheap village hall. But not to a congregation that’s been around since the Great Fire of London and that had Mary Wollstonecraft as a congregant. Investigate more and you find a sign proclaiming that the current chapel is a result of the German bombing campaigns of the 1940s. But I’m not here to judge the external merits of the building. Inside, there’s the unusual item I’m here to see; the smiling Andy Pakula.

Reverend Pakula is an unusual leader for the 350 year-old congregation because he’s been an atheist for his whole life. “(I grew up) in this Jewish family where we had a Christmas tree, no one ever talked to god, clearly no-one ever believed anything.” he tells me. “I’ve always been an atheist, except when maybe when I was five and I wanted to run faster. And that had nothing to do with god – I just wanted to magic it. ”

The first recorded English-language use of ‘atheist’ is in John Martiall’s 1566 A Replie to Mr Calfhills Blasphemous Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Cross, as an insult. Indeed atheist was exclusively used as an insult in 16th and 17th century Britain, meaning ‘one who lacks moral restraint’. The first person I can find who reclaimed atheism as a positive word was Jean Meslier. This seemingly-pious French village priest wrote a strident Testament, published posthumously, which was the first defence of atheism. (We only know about the Testament because Voltaire Bowdlerised it into a defence of deism.) Meslier also seems to have been the first person we can say for certain was a faithless priest.

After studying at MIT and working in biotech for many years, Pakula joined a Unitarian church in America. Soon, after he started the long process of seminary study that resulted in his acting as New Unity’s minister since 2006. All normal, if he hadn’t been an atheist. Yet the two core pastimes of ministers in monotheistic religions seem to be prayer to, and praise of, the god. Pakula can’t indulge in either of those. So what does he do, as a priest who has declared he has no faith?

“Unitarian congregations are all different, they’re not like franchises. There’s no one to tell you what to do. Some of them would be ‘of course god exists’. I try to be open and I hope I say things that allow for many interpretations. But you know, I talk about real life and why hope and compassion are important, and why change is hard… I believe in love.”

I suggest to him that his function is something like a community social psychologist. “Yes. Especially positive psychology, not abnormal psychology… Every person has worth and dignity. Go from there. You can make that religious and say every person has an immortal soul. You can take the Hasidic, Qabalistic view about the fragments in the divine in everyone. Hinduism with Atman and Brahman is lovely. We can work with that, it’s just stories. I base (my value system) on the values that I think will make a better, more peaceful, loving just world. What else can we really be for?”

Can we still call this a religion? Well, the UK supreme court has recognised that god isn’t necessary for a religion, recently ruling that Scientology is a religion. On that reading, secular organisations like London’s Sunday Assembly may one day get state religious backing.Of course, Revd. Pakula is unusual amongst atheist priests in that he’s ‘out’. Though the numbers are unknown, many more clergy are still ‘in’, hidden away in congregations around the world. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that 1 in 6 protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.

Of course all clergy express doubts. Many faiths emphasise that part of being a good theologian is testing your faith. But for some that process of testing can be catastrophic. Daphne (not her real name) is a Baptist Reverend in the UK. Her congregation emphasises a process of breaking down and rebuilding beliefs as part of the training process. “One of the first things that they try to do is strip down what you’ve inherited.” she says “They help you to own what you really believe. Then they question you… some people come away with a huge frustration over the institution and faith. They end up with a deeper faith, but they can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the institution.”

And some end up with no faith at all. For a priest that has lost his or her faith, the next step is hard. That’s because being a priest is more than being a font of godly power. It’s also a profession which comes with associated benefits. To be a priest, is to have a house, lifestyle, income, car, family, and community, all tied to that role. To step away from that – or even to risk it – must seem huge. Most faiths inculcate you with an ethics that praises openness and truth-telling. And as a priest and community leader, your role is to be a clear standard for that moral system, no matter the consequences.

Yet as the incentives against honesty include the loss of everything that defines you, it’s a hard thing to step away from. According to letters published by her postulator, even Mother Teresa managed to conceal her loss of faith for over fifty years. After all, it’s not like there’s a clear career path for ex-clergy. Thankfully, many of the more progressive Western faiths are supportive, like the Unitarians. The Church of England tacitly allows Christian non-realists to be ministers – that is, ministers who do not believe in the objective existence of a God. This has allowed ministers such as the former head of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, to come out as non-believers. The PKN church in Holland is also supportive.

Gretta Vosper is similarly lucky. Her faith – the United Church of Canada – has been ordaining women and LBGT ministers for many decades. Yet until Vosper came out to her congregation, it hadn’t had an atheist minister. “I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God.”

Unusually, the board of Vosper’s congregation decided to follow her. “We met. I openly acknowledged that I did not believe in god although at that time I did not call myself an atheist. I used the term non-theist…I acknowledged that this took me outside of what they had called me to do in ministry with them and they considered what they wanted to do. And they decided they wanted to head out in this direction and see where it led. The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened and been with me through everything. I feel so privileged to be in a congregation with them.”

Leaving god has also allowed the values that Vosper teaches to shift. “We place (positive values) before us in the same way we once placed god which was, to be true, simply a projection of a collection of values. We have distilled the good ones and use them. And I often speak of the future as a kind of god against which we can assess our actions. Are we living and making choices that will be judged positively by future generations or are we not?”

Vosper is now a member of the Clergy Project. This community, created by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola, hosts discussion for religious leaders who’ve lost their faith. It currently has 556 members, including Christian clergy, rabbis and imams. Of those, around a quarter are still serving as ministers. A message from Richard Dawkins welcomes new members saying. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.” The project financially supports ministers who want to use outplacement services to find new roles. Vosper is working to expand their remit to the conversion of congregations. “We have not yet set up a process to support clergy as they transition their congregations beyond belief but I am hoping to be able to do that with TCP’s support.”

The project emphasises anonymity because few faiths and nations are as forgiving of atheism as the Unitarian church or the UK government are. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2013 report noted, “The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.” It also showed that 13 Islamic countries have the death penalty for atheism. Last year, the UK government granted asylum to an Afghan atheist, as apostasy carries the death penalty in Afghanistan. Given that the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishment for apostasy is death, an imam who loses his faith is in a dangerous situation.

For that reason, all the clergy I spoke to were thankful that they lived in a society that tolerated their beliefs. Daphne says, “All the ministers in our area are basically preaching ‘let’s be tolerant, welcoming and open for our communities, however messy life may be’.”

Sources:
http://clergyproject.org/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14417362
http://iheu.org/you-can-be-put-death-atheism-13-countries-around-world/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10510301/Scientology-is-a-religion-rules-Supreme-Court.html.
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=20snAQAAIAAJ&q=%22to+entre&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&q=atheist&f=false
Interviews with Pakula, Vosper.

Feeling uncomfortable about my arguments against vegetarianism

A long while ago, one Christmas, I had a lengthy discussion with my younger brother, Sherlock Dov. It was prompted by his refusal to help washing up the dishes after a meal, because he’d become a vegetarian and didn’t want to touch anything that had been near meat. I’d got angry, because it seemed to be a fear of homeopathic contamination but in fact it was rooted in him not wanting to be complicit in the death of animals.

I couldn’t let it pass – that’s what family arguments are for – so I wrote up angrily that night a pseudo-Spinozan and Utilitarian point-by-point argument about how I could be a moral carnivore. It’s here, but I’ve edited substantially following criticisms in the comments. It’s taken me literally years to get around to finishing this.

  1. Premiss: The most important thing in any life is to be free from pain.
  2. Premiss: The next most important thing in any life is to have your desires satisfied.
  3. Premiss: There is no life after death, for animals (including men), plants, rocks or anything else
  4. Premiss: All things die.
  5. Premiss: Animals’ desires are simple and satisfiable.
  6. Premiss: If your death is forseeable, then that will cause anxiety – crudely, another form of pain.
  7. Premiss: All things considered, animals desires in the wild are satisfied less and they suffer more pain than animals’ lives in humane – that is free range – farming and well-regulated abattoirs. 
  8. If we must die, a death which is free from pain and is unforeseen is the best death. And we must die. (From 1, 4 & 6.)
  9. A life which involves the satisfaction of desires and ends as in 8 is called good. (From 1 & 2 & 3 & 5.)
  10. The length of the life should not matter to the individual, as long as it fulfils all conditions of 9 (3 & 4.) A leap, this one. 
  11. If an animal is raised and dies in a humane condition, it is the best life. (From 9 & 10.)
  12. For an animal, a life on a free-range farm ended sharply in a professional abattoir is the best life. (from 7 & 11)

I’m still pretty happy with the logic of these propositions. To me, they make a crude sense. If it fitted with the above propositions, was legal and well-cooked, I’d eat human flesh. (With humans, of course, there’s an element of choice – as fellow ‘rational’ organisms, they get a say in their lives and deaths.) I don’t think we’re qualitatively different from other animals, after all. My brother, I know, doesn’t believe me because he thinks I won’t ever have to defend this – by contrast, I think there’s a reasonable chance of human DNA-derived meat or faux meat being on the shelves at some point in my lifetime, and I’m happy to try it.

Point 7 worries me. I’m not sure abattoirs are sufficiently humane – the ones I’ve seen seem horribly primitive. But they are mostly fast enough, I think and hope, to not infringe 6. Worries about point 7 are enough to make me consider vegetarianism, now, years after the original discussion.

That said, I’m aware that point 10 is my biggest leap – and that from that point, the argument as a whole could be construed as justifying genocide. That’s worrying, but it has started me wondering whether our concern with racial preservation is itself suspect. If we killed every chicken on the planet, humanely, what’s the problem? I don’t think chickens particularly care about the preservation of genetic data, and if we don’t worry about killing one, why do we worry about killing all of them.

Please, now – tear this logic apart.

Stupidity’s Unpopular Cousin: Intellectualism in the UK

“to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas.”

This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.

Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.

That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.

But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.


https://twitter.com/Grabcocque/statuses/481462368531398656
https://twitter.com/Grabcocque/statuses/481463246999023616

So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)

Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”

Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.

It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:

“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”

There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.

It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.

To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.

I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Dan Griliopoulos, games journalist:

“There’s no inherent meaning in life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. First off, you’re raised, deliberately or accidentally, with an array of beliefs, values and prejudices by family, school, and society, that mesh or clash with the things you biologically like – that is, nature and nurture shape your preferences. So there’s already things that you value, more get put on you fairly quickly, and you get to spend your life exploring their precedence, their acceptability to society and its laws, and whether you really like them or not.

So, what I’m saying is that value is inherent to us all, which provides a grounding to meaning. I’m not saying that such a meaning is justified, but if you’re smart, lucky and/or ruthless it might be internally coherent by the time you hit adulthood, which is more than most off-the-shelf meaning systems out there (whether that’s philosophies, health systems, or religions). Meaning is a human thing – to go looking for it in the alien, unconscious universe is nonsense on stilts.”

Source: I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Why our child won’t have my name.

15039746931_7f83e06f8b_o

So, we’re having a child. In less than a month. And it won’t have my name. There are many rational reasons why this is, but the main one, to get out of the way, is that the presumption a child should take the father’s name is nonsense on stilts. Tradition is never a good argument.

On top of that, there’s good feminist reasons for he/she/it (damn the lack of an acceptable gender neutral) to have my partner’s name – to balance out the long history of mankind where children didn’t have women’s names and women were excluded from society, seen just as vectors for men’s seed, treated as chattel and the property of their husbands.

Of course, there’s no reason it should have anything like my name, or even a standard human name. “Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion.” FM-2030 said “I am not who I was ten years ago and certainly not who I will be in twenty years.” I’d rather our child escaped the shackles of tradition, though she can opt in later, should she so wish.

Tradition is only local: surnames were mononymous in most areas of the world at one time, then became bynames, to distinguish people. In Prestatyn, where my grandma lived, the surnames were so similar that it was still normal to call people that way – she used to call them Jones the Butcher, Jones the Taxi, and Jones the Baker. Outside of there, I’m sure Jones of Prestatyn wouldn’t be unknown.

Though I was open to the child not having either of our names, we’re sadly not as enlightened as FM-2030. It’s probably going to have a first name that reflects something of its heritage, and it will take its mother’s surname. I was also open to the child being given just a first name, then choosing its own surname at the age of majority; we may just emphasise that it can change its own name whenever it wants.

Practically though, the child is in the medium and long run more likely to grow up with its mother, so it should have her name. There’s a higher chance of me dying and a higher chance of it staying with her if we split up (which we’re not planning to, but it’s wise to be rational). Even for day-to-day aspects, the child is initially dependent on her, so more likely to be travelling with her around the country and world.

There’s also the aesthetic qualities of our actual names. My surname is batshit hard to spell. I’ve gradually got tired of spelling it out and typing it out every day. My partner’s name is as interesting and not an absolute pisser to spell. And it’s much easier to make puns or references with her name – Dain – and the middle names which I’m trying so hard to slip in like Duné or Ironfoot.

The final quality for decision-making is core; respect. The woman carries the baby, and suffers huge pain and terrible damage. All the support I can give is nothing in comparison to what she has to go through so we can have a child.

How Are Games Changing SF Literature?

Walking into any bookshop, the science-fiction section seen, from a distance, is healthy; an island of colour and variety amidst the sad faces of the ‘misery memoirs’, the black and bone of the ‘Dark Romance’, and the silver-backed Penguin classics. Yet, get closer, and there’s something strange. The colour comes in bursts, great streaks of the same style dominating the shelves, logos iterating across shelf after shelf. Stars Wars and Star Trek are there, for sure, but they’re not in charge; video game franchises are dominating science fiction and fantasy.

wakingmars_010

This article originally appeared in PlaySF magazine, way back in 2012.

Walking into any bookshop, the science-fiction section seen, from a distance, is healthy; an island of colour and variety amidst the sad faces of the ‘misery memoirs’, the black and bone of the ‘Dark Romance’, and the silverbacked Penguin classics. Yet, get closer, and there’s something strange. The colour comes in bursts, great streaks of the same style dominating the shelves, logos iterating across shelf after shelf. Stars Wars and Star Trek are there, for sure, but they’re not in charge; video game franchises are dominating science fiction and fantasy.

The video game market is huge, especially compared to original science fiction. Yet, game fiction is often ignored by the publishing industry. I talked to Tony Gonzales, the writer of the Eve Online tie-in novels The Empyrean Age and Templar One, who bemoaned the short shrift given to game fiction; “it’s all piled into Fantasy / Science Fiction,” he said, “located in the most inconspicuous section of the store. It’s the same with digital sales. The obscurity is compounded by the fact that some literary trade publications won’t even review game tie-ins.” So why do SF literary journalists turn their noses up at this burgeoning genre, when it’s bringing new readers to the market?

Gonzales thinks that “general SF purists scoff at gaming because most games reuse ideas and concepts that have been in print for a decade…” Hard science fiction fans also have particular problems with games. Gonzales explains; “(also) most enjoyable games makes some patent flubs to science in the name of creating fun gameplay. That’s pure sacrilege to the hard SF fan because it shatters their immersion… the game audience is used to instant gratification… they have short attention spans and authors trying to capture them better get to the point quickly.”

Given this, it seems necessary for the best SF author to adapt to gamers’ tastes by avoiding challenging material – and this is already happening. “I see a certain amount of literary science fiction trying to appeal to the gamer audience,” Niall Harrison, Editor in Chief of speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons, said, “Mostly in near-future thrillers that incorporate MMORPGs or ARGs as a plot element – I’m thinking of Charles Stross’ Halting State, and Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game, not to mention Stephenson’s Reamde.”

It’s also happening in the way that further-future SF is written. “Ten years ago I might have talked about a ‘blockbuster’ sensibility in the work of writers like Richard Morgan (who has since worked on the story for Crysis 2).” says Harrison “Now I’m thinking more of an ‘FPS’ sensibility in novels like Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three (and Bear has of course written Halo tie-in novels).” Gonzales agreed; “There’s a struggle between what audiences want to read in SF versus what authors who work in the genre want to write.”

Neil Tringham, an ex-games designer and now editor on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction told me that “there are presumably some people who buy spinoffs from SF games such as Starcraft who wouldn’t otherwise read SF.” What’s new is that the generic science-fiction of the past has been replaced by branded tie-ins, including games. “I do suspect that the part of the book market that was occupied by long running but not especially original sf adventure series, such as E C Tubb’s Dumarest sequence, has to some extent been taken over by long running but not very innovative series based on company owned concepts, such as Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000,” said Tringham.

Not that branded science fiction is new, as Strange Horizon’s Niall Harrison notes; “there has been tie-in fiction for decades and well-respected writers have written it in all periods of the field’s history. It’s always looked down on by the ‘serious’ sf readers, and it’s almost always sold buckets more than the original stuff.” Gonzales hasn’t produced his own universe fiction yet but if he did, “just about all brand-driven fiction would outsell my work… the marketing resources that can support that brand will be vastly greater than will ever be thrown by publishers at standalone books.”

It’s just a pity that so much of in-game narratives and worlds of games are cheesy, badly conceived or safe. Take the Mass Effect universe, where the height of daring for the writers is to accurately depict the same-sex relationships that exist in our society today. “I do see a certain amount of gentle mocking of the Mass Effect universe for being built from elements of umpteen existing franchises.” says Harrison. “A possible exception might be BioShock, thanks to its dialogue with the work of Ayn Rand.” (Rand’s ideas – about superhuman entrepreneurs being held back by the average man – informed the story of the dystopian shooter Bioshock). On the whole, though, when the fiction is reviewed it garners bad scores – probably worse than it would get if it wasn’t branded.

However, it’s not only literary journalists who decry the quality of game fiction. Consider the recent comments of EA’s Chuck Beaver, the producer of the Dead Space franchise; “Gears of War… contains atrocious, offensive violations of story basics. Yet it doesn’t seem to ruin it for many, many people. It’s literally the worst writing in games, but seems to have no ill effects.” He even admitted that his own company’s Dead Space was itself “just a simple haunted house story that we later pasted a personal narrative on top of – a lost girlfriend who is really dead.” (He apologised after this statement.) Admittedly, Beaver’s not talking about the books, but if the original narrative of the game is bad, how far can the fiction improve on it? Is game tie-in fiction just bad?

A Quick Philosophy Lesson
Most game fiction falls into the ‘space opera’ category, AKA ‘science fantasy’; that is, unscientific futuristic fiction. It’s enjoyable, but it’s pulp fiction, like Mass Effect. Is there a moral argument for valuing hard science fiction over fantasy, beyond keeping educated SF fans immersed? Well, let’s assume we want to make as many people happy as possible, beyond the fleeting pleasure of actually reading the fiction. An old exponent of keeping people happy was the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty he talked about “experiments in living” like so;

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.”

Now, speculative fiction has always aimed for this. It’s shown people other ways of living, on the basis of other ways the world could be, and explored the personal (Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon), social (H.G. Well’s The Time Machine) and moral (James Blish’s A Case of Conscience) consequences of this. It’s been damn good entertainment, yes, but it’s also opened up people’s minds to the possibilities of other ways our societies could work.

The best at this has been hard science fiction, because it takes the technology of the near future and extrapolates how our society would alter just from that – Clarke and Asimov are the classic examples here, though we might also point to John Brunner’s scarily prescient Stand on Zanzibar or Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus. This is exactly the sort of fiction that the new gaming audience doesn’t like and is getting squeezed out.

And the worst at throwing up these models of living? I’d argue the worst is ‘space opera’. Its relevance to our lives is purely in its unjustified assumption of social parallels. And that’s what’s dominating the shelves because SF video games are pure science fantasy. Indeed, they’re bringing new forms of science fantasy into existence, as the Science Fiction Encylopedia’s Tringham explains; “There are two trends in recent books which have at least been influenced by developments in SF games. I’m thinking of what the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes as Science and Sorcery ( the ‘genre-blending juxtaposition of sf and fantasy settings’) and Medieval Futurism ( ‘sf… with heavy overtones of the Middle Ages feudal systems as the governing bodies’.”

As a gamer, I’m overjoyed that games have such a large cultural impact; as a SF reader, I’m ecstatic that they may be extending the reach of SF beyond its niche; and I can’t deny that many of these books tell a terribly good yarn. Yet, as a good utilitarian, I’m depressed to see something so dominant which rarely mingles its undeniable entertainment value with philosophical lessons or images of our possible futures.

A counter-argument, as made to me by PlaySF’s editor Richie when discussing this article, is that the moral questions can still be raised by all fiction, including space opera; “I thought the patent flub of having clones in, say, Eve Online actually brings about interesting questions about the value of life when death becomes only a minor financial concern – which has been done to death in proper SF.” Indeed, SF games have had a positive effect on the acceptance of SF and fantasy ideas, across all media, similar to the way that Margaret Atwood’s or George Orwell’s near future dystopias managed to avoid the label of SF. “I rarely hear SF games discussed for their interest as SF.” says Strange Horizon’s Harrison. “People are excited by Portal because it’s charming and the mechanic is cool, rather than because it includes any particularly new SF ideas.”

Despite my personal pessimism, it’s likely that the fiction of games will improve, dragged up perhaps by the fresh innovation and quality we see coming from the indie development scene, like the hard science of Waking Mars or the softer humanism of To The Moon. Perhaps games will even be fed by the great Sci-Fi books of the past, as Roadside Picnic informed the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. If we’re lucky, this fiction will trickle over into the mainstream games and hence books pushed to the SF market. I can hope for all this but given the market’s appetite (and the prevalence of games like the appalling Dark Star), it seems unlikely. As Theodore Sturgeon famously said, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” That’s true with both games and with fiction, derived or not.

A Fresh Breeze: The Witness & Jonathan Blow

I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Jonathan Blow, creator of the most challenging game of this generation “Braid”, and play a very early version of his next puzzler The Witness; so early that only the core structure will be preserved when it’s finally released.

To the tune of: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Witness Song

I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Jonathan Blow, creator of the most challenging game of this generation “Braid”, and play a very early version of his next puzzler The Witness; so early that only the core structure will be preserved when it’s finally released.

The island is small, but it’s complex, hilly and strangely landscaped. Blow later explains to me that he’s hired architects to help him establish a pre-history for the island, re-landscape it and redesign all the buildings to reflect the multiple peoples who have lived there. It’s a lot of hinterland to put into the background of a puzzle game, and is the thing that most reminds me of the obvious referent, Myst.

Over the next half hour, I wander past several other incomprehensible puzzles, escapees from Mirror’s Edge: a tangle of red girders balanced along the shore like children’s toys; orange geometric blocks jutting from the light blue sea; a cylindrical black monolith standing by itself in a glade; a buddha hardly noticeable in the shadow of a tree decal; a hole in a wall that forms a human face if looked at from an exact angle; an ancient oak tree covered in shoots of new life and surrounded by dead twigs. All this is place-holder?

This is a game about working your mind hard, becoming aware of the world around you and coming to appreciate it how it can be integrated with puzzles about sound, shadows, texture, mathematics, location, light and memory, never knowing what’s going to be relevant to the next puzzle. Like Blow’s Braid, it’s also about the expression of both philosophical concepts and of intriguing, rapidly-changing mechanics, though neither of these are forced on you. They produce a coherency to the world, give a cleanness and light to The Witness that’s hard to express; you’ll snark me off the site for being this synaesthetic, but it feels like a mix of the contrasty cinematography of Ibsen’s The Seventh Seal, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the sudden glare of fresh snow.

(From The Witness: Hands On)

RPS have most of the content, but it’s worth pulling a few quotes out of the lonnnng interview I did with Jonathan:

…if there’s a puzzle that’s too difficult and 70% of players don’t get it… it’s o-kay. I’d rather have it, to be able to go to that depth or height or whatever. Cuz otherwise you’re saying a good video game is one that doesn’t alienate players and is linear and these things, then you’re saying that games can’t do puzzles of a certain complexity. Which I think is a shame.

Games have this very traditional thing where you find a key and the key gets you through a door. It’s like that here, except that the key is just what you understand. Concepts as keys.

The core idea behind the game has something to do with the very difficult question of who we are and why we’re here. What is it about walking around a world, looking at things and noticing things and being conscious of them? It’s a question a lot of people have asked throughout history and for which there are a number of approaches, in the wide sense. You might have a very scientific mindset and say, “all we know about the universe is that which we directly observe”, or you might have a philosopher’s mindset and base your things on argument… I wouldn’t break it into discrete avenues like that; there’s some scientific stuff, philosophical stuff, and spiritual and religious stuff, some just straight up pragmatist… and there’s this idea that this stuff is the space because the character is trying to figure out what way to go, trying to understand these things better.

With this, there’s no action-element, nobody’s going to kill you or a bomb that’s going to blow up in five minutes. It’s about building that space that’s pensive. Having the faith that what’s behind the puzzles is interesting enough that we don’t have to push the player with an emergency or drama or fight to survive. I like that because it’s a mood you don’t get very often, especially in games where you’re walking around a world. Usually if you’re playing a RPG and feel safe, it’s because you already killed everyone in the area. To have that be the game, to have it be a placid place, almost a meditative place, or just a calm, subconscious place.

There’s something about a flow of ideas that starts and goes places and keeps refining and evolving and ends up somewhere, even if it’s not linear, that seems more literary. In something like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I haven’t read but I’ve seen the film, you start with a conceit, possibly several, and you ask “what happens in this situation” and every one of those questions has an answer that’s interesting. I don’t feel like we do that kind of thing in games yet; this sort of ended up there accidentally, where there’s this flow of ideas all the time. I kinda like it, now that the game’s designed, but I’m not going to pretend that I planned that.

(From Coming to Blow’s: The Witness Interview)

Read more:

The Witness: Hands On

Coming to Blow’s: The Witness Interview